School & District Management

Finland’s Latest Export: A Novel Approach to Recess

By Samantha Stainburn — March 04, 2014 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Visitors to Finland typically bring home a Marimekko apron or some cloudberry jam, but Debbie Rhea, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University, picked up another souvenir in a recent trip there: a new approach to recess in schools.

Rhea spent six weeks in Finland studying that country’s school system, which has gained international attention because of its strong showing on the Program for International Assessment (PISA), a global measure of student achievement in math, reading, and science.

Finnish education has some interesting quirks. Compulsory education begins at age 7, the school days are less than 6 hours long, and there’s plenty of recess.

A Finnish 1st grader spends 4.5 hours a day in school, according to Rhea, who is both a professor and an associate dean at the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University, which is in Fort Worth. Three hours of each day are spent on content in the classroom, and another 1.5 hours are spent on recess or “unstructured outdoor play.” In the United States, meanwhile, a typical 1st grader attends school for seven hours a day, but recess, particularly outdoor play, is not always part of the schedule.

In a new Education Week commentary “Give Students Time to Play,” Rhea explains what she observed in Finland:

Kids are built to move. Having more time for unstructured outdoor play is like handing them a reset button. It not only helps to break up their day, but it also allows them to blow off steam, while giving them an opportunity to move and redirect their energy to something more meaningful once they return to the classroom.

Science backs up the Finnish approach, she says:

When a human sits for longer than about 20 minutes, the physiology of the brain and body changes. Gravity begins to pool blood into the hamstrings, robbing the brain of needed oxygen and glucose, or brain fuel. The brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Moving and being active stimulates the neurons that fire in the brain. When you are sitting, those neurons don't fire.

Inspired by the Finnish example, Rhea has launched an increased recess pilot program at two private schools in Texas, giving students two 15-minute unstructured outdoor-play breaks in the morning and two more in the afternoon. Rhea plans to study the results at the two schools and an additional three public elementary schools that will test the idea this fall.

It is worth noting that Finland hasn’t completely cracked the code on student achievement. While Finland’s performance on PISA is well above that of the United States in all three subjects, the nation’s scores have steadily declined on the global over the past two rounds of testing.

Leaving that aside, Rhea, as a recess advocate, has plenty of company. A growing pile of research shows that unstructured play--and more of it--promotes learning.

And just last week, first lady Michelle Obama hailed a commitment from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the National Recreation and Park Association to include at least 30 minutes of physical activity in their after-school programs.

“This is going to make a huge impact--not just on our kids’ health, but on their success in school and in life,” Obama said in a statement.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.